Monday, November 19, 2018


Ford's Nucleon: Just don't get rear ended.
In 1958, the Ford Motor Company built a prototype “car of the future” called the Nucleon. What looked like a spare tire on the trunk lid was actually a nuclear reactor, with fuel rods that could be adjusted to suit the driver’s appetite for horsepower. Ford didn’t mention what would happen to this rolling Chernobyl in a wreck, but I’m sure the results would have been spectacular.   

Like the unlamented Nucleon, predictions about the future of domestic design have also been way off the mark. From the strange ideals of the Italian Futurists—architects who waxed rhapsodic over high voltage transmission towers, the smell of engine exhaust, and ditches filled with factory waste—to today's techies ceaselessly extolling "the internet of things", the future is often a place we’d rather laugh about than live in. Want a few examples?  Here ya go:

Fillippo Marinetti, the leader of the
Futurist movement of the early 19th
Century, liked the smell of exhaust,
but was less keen on wood and fabrics.
•  In 1911, Fillipo Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, predicted that 21st century Italy would be controlled by a technocracy of engineers who “live in high tension chambers. . . between walls of iron and crystal. . .free at last from the examples of fragility and softness offered by wood and fabrics with their rural ornaments. . .” Marinetti would die twice if he could see what the future has actually brought us from Italy: the inspiration for countless ersatz Tuscan villas.

In New York's 1939 World's Fair Kitchen of the Future,
appliances operated by themselves, leaving the homemaker
more time to wear low-cut gowns.
•  The New York World’s Fair of 1939, with its renowned Futurama exhibit, also put tremendous faith in technology, though to a less terrifying extent than Marinetti. The Fair’s Kitchen of the Future was an antiseptic-looking cooking laboratory with white floors, white walls, and white steel cabinets. At the wave of a hand, various automatic appliances would miraculously descend from hidden places, eliciting a beatific smile from the pearl-clad housewife.

Today’s actual kitchens are a long way from this gee-whiz gadget worship. In fact, they’re so retrograde they’d make a ‘39 Fairgoer shiver: wooden cabinets remain the steadfast favorite of consumers, just as they always have been. And American appliance makers are now producing nostalgically-styled ranges, refrigerators, and washing machines that would look very much at home in the average prewar kitchen. In other words, back to the future.

Disneyland's House of Tomorrow. To its sponsor,
Monsanto, the home of the future would be 100% plastic.
And you thought their genetically modified foods were scary.
•  In 1957, M.I.T. and Monsanto Corp. jointly unveiled their House of Tomorrow at Disneyland. Its claim to the future? It was built entirely of plastic—walls, floors, chairs, dishes, everything. This was a time, remember, when man-made materials symbolized a whole new era, what with Bakelite radios, Nylon stockings, and Vinyl upholstery. So what could be more futuristic than a house that was 100% plastic?  Still, this was probably not the place for folks with environmental illness.

Facebook may still exist in the future,
but will you still like it?
Clearly, most of the predicted revolutions in America’s lifestyle have amounted to diddly. There’s nothing sad about that—it simply reassures us that the future will look pretty much like the present.  Sure, we’ll have electric cars, space travel, and a social media up the wazoo. But it’s a good bet those cars will still have old tortilla chip crumbs under the seats, the bus to Mars will run late, and there’ll still be nothing worth seeing on Facebook.

Because even in the future, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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